Well, I REALLY, REALLY hate to do this to you… We were progressing so well in our culinary Chinese lessons and, now, I have to introduce a nasty new complication that is going to make our job that much harder…

Take a look at the two noodles bowls in the picture above. We encountered the left-most Chinese character a few weeks back and identified it as ‘miàn’, meaning the wheat-flour noodle of the ‘Chow Mein’ type. Well, as it turns out, the character on the bowl on the right is also ‘miàn’. In fact, it is the actually same character.

Well, sort of … Unfortunately, I now have to break the news to you that there are, in fact, two parallel systems of Chinese characters. We’ll take a look at the actual details of that in a moment but, first, you need to know a bit about the story behind the situation… Read More →

Last week, we saw that the Chinese word for Beef is formed by combining the characters for ‘Cow’ and ‘Meat’. In that lesson, we focused mainly on the ‘Cow’ character but today we are going to turn our attention to the character for ‘Meat’ and see how it is used in connection with other popular menu items… Read More →

First of all, apologies to those of you who are too young to recognize the catch-phrase I adopted for the title of today’s post. However, even if you didn’t get the reference, you can still probably guess, from the various clues, that the two Chinese characters in the above picture are translated as ‘Beef’…

The first of these characters means ‘cow’ or ‘ox’, while the second translates as ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’. The Pinyin transliteration ‘niúròu’ doesn’t really suggest the pronunciation very well but our cow helpfully provides this as ‘Nyoe Roe’ (which is close enough for now).

The main focus of today’s lesson will actually be on the first character. We will also be looking at the second in much more detail in an upcoming lesson but, for now, take note of its shape. To me it looks rather like a coat rack with one of the coat-hangers falling off, but others see it as a rib-cage, which does rather suggest the meaning…

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Okay, I admit it… Today’s opening picture is a really, really bad pun. The protesters in question apparently have some issue with a trade pact, or something… I don’t know what point they are trying to make exactly, nor do I understand the significance of the flowers, but I am fairly sure that somebody, somewhere quite likely dismissed these people as ‘radicals’ …

The topic of radicals, you may recall, is something I have mentioned several times now and, on each occasion, I have promised that I would be shedding some light on the whole issue. What is going to follow is a little bit technical but it is very important… Indeed, I can pretty much guarantee that today’s topic will be one of the most important things you need to know. Bear with me and I will try to make it as painless as possible…

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Today’s lesson begins with the same picture with which we concluded last week’s post. In our lesson last week, we looked at the compound word 家常, meaning ‘Home-style’, and specifically focused on the first character, 家, which can mean home, family, or in some circumstances, ‘house’. In today’s post, we will be looking at a new compound in which 家 is used in the latter sense.

The sign above does specify that the restaurant serves 家常菜 but in the large character name it uses the 家 character without the 常 after it. Instead, we see that it is preceded by a character we have not encountered before and, in concluding the last post, I asked you to guess at what the two-character combination, 酒家, might mean.

If you guessed that 酒家 probably means restaurant, and that the full name of the establishment pictured above is ‘Sichuan Restaurant’, then kudos to you indeed. The character combination 酒家 does, in fact, get translated as ‘Restaurant’ but this is actually a very loose translation and, in order to see what I mean by that, we need to look at the 酒 in more detail…Read More →

For those of you who have been following these Chinese language posts, the 菜 character (grass-claw-tree) ought to be leaping out at you from the covers of the three cookery books pictured above. You may also be able to guess, from the context, that the titles of the books refer to some type of cuisine.

We have already looked the Chinese characters specifically indicating Sichuan cuisine (川菜 or 四川菜) and Beijing cuisine (京菜 or 北京菜). In those cases, the characters preceding the ‘cài’ refer to a province and a city respectively. Here, however, the 家常 before the 菜 doesn’t refer to a location at all… Read More →

Every single Chinese character is composed of a specific set of brush strokes that is formally prescribed both in form and number. Now… repeat that last sentence to yourself and digest it for a moment.

Chinese calligraphy is a fascinating subject in its own right but we won’t actually be spending too much time on it in these posts for a couple of reasons. First, I am pretty darn awful at drawing Chinese characters (and therefore in no way qualified to instruct others) and, secondly, this series of posts is more about reading, rather than writing. Still, that being said, we can’t completely ignore the rudiments of the latter if we are going to be any good at the former.

 As already discussed in our post ‘Look me up sometime…’, being able to look up Chinese characters in a dictionary is an essential skill and I asked you, in that post, to consider the ways that lists of characters might be organized. Kudos to those of you who then read ‘A Character Study…’ and guessed that the number of strokes in a given character might be a useful indexing method. As it happens, listing characters according to their ‘stroke count’ is just one of the ways of organizing them into dictionaries… Read More →

The title of today’s post may not make much sense to many of my overseas readers unless they have seen a lot of older American movies. ‘Chow’ is a somewhat dated American slang word for food and to ‘Chow down’ once meant to eat. Now, I am not sure of the origins of the word but I doubt it actually had much to do with stir-frying, or Chinese food in general for that matter. However, the similarity does make for a nice segue into the subject of today’s post, which is … what puts the ‘Chow’ in ‘Chow Mein’… Read More →

Today, we are beginning our post with a new character. However, you will probably notice that, contrary to previous practice, I have provided you with neither the pronunciation nor a definition. The reason for this is that we will be looking at both of those things next week. The 炒 character doesn’t often appear on restaurant signs but it will appear lots of times on just about every menu you will ever encounter. It is a very useful character to know and we will eventually have some fun exploring it in more detail.

That being said, I am trying, in these lessons, to alternate the interesting and instructive stuff with information that is a bit less exciting but nevertheless critical. Next week’s post will be a lot more fun, I promise you, but, today, please bear with me as we wade through a bit of technical stuff. The best way to begin is to dive right in by stating a few basic, but essential principles… Read More →

Today’s post is not so much a lesson in written Chinese as it is just a little food for thought…  So far, in our first few posts, we have looked at the following Chinese characters:

菜 白 四 川 北 京 味

大 小 上 海 苗 燕 精 不 辣

The 7 in the first line have been examined in some detail while the remaining 9 in the second line have received only a brief mention. Thus far, the total is only 16 characters and if you are seriously following these lessons and keeping an eye out for the various characters in grocery stores or restaurants etc., you could probably print out the above two lines and keep them in your pocket for easy reference.

What will happen, though, when our vocabulary list approaches 25, 50, or even a hundred characters? I expect you can probably guess how quickly such a list would become unmanageable without some sort of method for organizing the characters in a meaningful sequence. To illustrate this, we can try a simple exercise:

Our first 7 characters listed above are printed out in the order in which we encountered them in the previous series of posts. What I would like you to do now is organize them in their ‘correct’ order… Read More →